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Ashwagandha is an evergreen shrub that grows in India, the Middle East, and parts of Africa. It has a long history of use in traditional medicine.

For hundreds of years, people have used the roots and orange-red fruit of ashwagandha for medicinal purposes. The herb is also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry.

The name “ashwagandha” describes the smell of its root, meaning “like a horse.” By definition, ashwa means horse.

Practitioners use this herb as a general tonic to boost energy and reduce stress and anxiety. Some also claim that the herb may be beneficial for certain cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, and anxiety.

More research is necessary; to date, promising studies into the health benefits of ashwagandha have mainly been in animals.

This article looks at the traditional uses of ashwagandha, how to take it, and the evidence behind its possible health benefits and risks.

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Image credit: Eugeniusz Dudzinski/Getty Images

Ashwagandha is an important herb in Ayurvedic medicine. This is one of the world’s oldest medical systems and one of India’s healthcare systems.

In Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha is considered a Rasayana. This means that it helps maintain youth, both mentally and physically.

There is some evidence to suggest that the herb can have neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects. Inflammation underpins many health conditions, and reducing inflammation can protect the body against a variety of conditions.

For example, people use ashwagandha to help treat the following:

Different treatments make use of different parts of the plant, including the leaves, seeds, and fruit.

This herb is gaining popularity in the West. Today, people can buy ashwagandha as a supplement in the United States.

Scientific studies have suggested that ashwagandha might be beneficial for a number of conditions.

That said, researchers do not know a lot about how the herb reacts within the human body. Most studies so far have used animal or cell models, meaning that scientists do not know if the same results will occur in humans.

There is some evidence to support the use of ashwagandha for the following:

Stress and anxiety

Ashwagandha may have a calming effect on anxiety symptoms when compared with the drug lorazepam, a sedative and anxiety medication.

A 2000 study suggested that the herb had a comparable anxiety-reducing effect with lorazepam, suggesting that ashwagandha might be as effective for reducing anxiety. However, the researchers conducted this study in mice, not humans.

In a 2019 study in humans, researchers found that taking a daily dose of 240 milligrams (mg) of ashwagandha significantly reduced people’s stress levels when compared with a placebo. This included reduced levels of cortisol, which is a stress hormone.

In another 2019 study in humans, taking 250 mg or 600 mg of ashwagandha per day resulted in lower self-reported stress levels, as well as lower cortisol levels.

Although this research is promising, scientists need to collect much more data before recommending the herb to treat anxiety.

Arthritis

Ashwagandha may act as a pain reliever, preventing pain signals from traveling along the central nervous system. It may also have some anti-inflammatory properties.

For this reason, some research has shown it to be effective in treating forms of arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis.

A small 2015 study in 125 people with joint pain found the herb to have potential as a treatment option for rheumatoid arthritis.

Heart health

Some people use ashwagandha to boost their heart health, including:

However, there is little research to support these benefits.

One 2015 study in humans suggested that ashwagandha root extract could enhance a person’s cardiorespiratory endurance, which could improve heart health. However, more research is necessary.

Alzheimer’s treatment

According to a 2011 review, several studies have examined ashwagandha’s ability to slow or prevent loss of brain function in people with neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.

As these conditions progress, parts of the brain and its connective paths become damaged, which leads to loss of memory and function. This review suggests that when mice and rats receive ashwagandha during the early disease stages, it may be able to offer protection.

Cancer

The same 2011 review also describes a few promising studies that found that ashwagandha might be able to stop cell growth in certain cancers. This includes reducing lung tumors in animal studies.

The dosage of ashwagandha and the way people use it depends on the condition they are hoping to treat. There is no standard dosage based on modern clinical trials.

Different studies have used different dosages. Some research suggests that taking 250–600 mg per day can reduce stress. Other studies have used much higher dosages.

Capsule dosages often contain between 250 and 1,500 mg of ashwagandha. The herb comes in the form of a capsule, powder, and liquid extract.

In some cases, taking high doses can cause unpleasant side effects. It is best to speak with a healthcare professional about safety and dosage before taking any new herbal supplements, including ashwagandha.

People can usually tolerate ashwagandha in small-to-medium doses. However, there have not been enough long-term studies to fully examine the possible side effects.

Taking large amounts of ashwagandha can lead to digestive upset, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. This may be due to irritation of the intestinal mucosa.

Pregnant women should avoid using ashwagandha because it may cause distress for the fetus and premature labor.

Another potential concern for Ayurvedic herbs is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not regulate the manufacturers. This means that they are not held to the same standards as pharmaceutical companies and food producers.

It is possible for herbs to contain contaminants such as heavy metals, or they may not contain the actual herb at all. People should be sure to do some research on the manufacturer before purchasing any product.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, some Ayurvedic products may contain lead, mercury, and arsenic in levels above what experts consider to be acceptable for human daily intake.

Ashwagandha is a herbal treatment in Ayurvedic medicine. Some studies suggest that ashwagandha could have a range of health benefits, including reducing stress and anxiety and improving arthritis.

Pregnant women and people with preexisting health conditions should talk to their doctor before using ashwagandha.

Many of the studies so far have been small, conducted in animals, or had flaws in their design. For this reason, researchers cannot say with certainty that it is an effective treatment. More work is necessary.

If a person chooses to use this herb as part of a treatment plan, they should be sure to discuss it with their doctor first.

Shop for ashwagandha

People can buy different forms of ashwagandha from health food stores or online: